20th birthday for integration
Integration in Italy is 20 years old. Special schools disappeared almost overnight in 1977 when legislation provided for the integration of children with special needs into mainstream education.
Almost inevitably, the schools were not ready in time, lacking facilities and trained staff, and it was not until the mid-Eighties that training courses were organised.
Today there are 110,000 statemented children in mainstream state education (2 per cent of the total school population), most of them in the compulsory primary and lower secondary sectors.
However, an increasing number of 14-year-olds with special needs now go on to scuola superiore (with a 10 per cent rise in enrolments in 199697 over the previous year), which seems to suggest that integration is working.
Depending on the nature of a pupil's learning difficulty, he or she is assigned to a "support" teacher for anything from four hours per week to a full timetable.
Wherever possible this teacher stays with the pupil in the classroom, helping them to participate in class activities.
The teacher may need to produce special materials, and at exam time, special tests which parallel those of the rest of the class, but which are within reach of the individual. A policy of positive discrimination means that no reference to "simplified" tests appears on the child's public exam certificates.
While the number of special needs pupils has remained stable over the past 10 years, the number of teachers has continued to grow.
One in 14 teachers is now a specialist in sostegno (support), and special needs has become a classic route back into work for supernumerary class teachers.
Against a backdrop of falling rolls, disappearing classes, and schools closing down, special needs is the most obvious way of absorbing teachers who would otherwise lose their jobs.
This year the government is financing a major project to retrain supernumerary teachers to work with special needs children.
But supporters of integration would argue that the best way to measure the success of their policy is not through the steadily improving pupil-teacher ratio (which now stands at 2:1) or the slow but sure provision of wheelchair access to schools. Rather it is that a generation has now grown up in Italy believing that children with special needs do not have to be sent to special schools.